Sometimes it feels like the short Film world is a loud, crowded house party where you have to shout to be heard. In this kind of atmosphere, it’s easy for quiet films get lost in the noise, but every once in awhile, you find a film like this, and it makes you wonder what else you’ve missed out on. Rodd Rathjen’s Tau Seru is about the adolescent son of a nomadic Himalayan shepherd, whose story of growing up is told with subtlety rather than spectacle, and though the plot takes place in a place most of us have never been to, the boy’s story will feel familiar for anyone who’s ever wanted to get out of their hometown in search of a more interesting place.
Like its title (which translates to Small Yellow Field), Tau Seru is simple and understated. There’s no background score and little in the way of artificial lighting. The main characters are all non-professional actors, and the livestock has more lines of dialogue than the humans. It’s a miracle that the film isn’t boring! Through a combination of relatable plot, crystal-clear visual storytelling, and effective sound design, the film charms the viewer with its simple beauty. Essentially, the lack of fancy filmmaking makes us focus in on the story onscreen, and like the hostile, infertile land where this boy lives, the frames are beautiful in their emptiness.
In Tau Seru, vehicles serve as an invasive species of sorts; for the boy, they are his only link to the outside world. His only distraction from his life of solitude seems to be the noisy vehicles that cut through the desert landscape on the way to somewhere else. He perks up whenever they come into view, and as he gazes longingly at these vehicles, we get the idea that they might someday hold the key to his future. He doesn’t curse at the world he lives in, but he does throws a lot of rocks at the air, as if each one is a rhetorical question expressing his frustration. What is there to live off in this small yellow field? What future is there here? What reason is there to stay?
Rathjen filmed Tau Seru in a dry, rocky landscape, and it wasn’t easy to film, but the film went on the premiere at Cannes Critic Week in 2013, so the hard work seems to have paid off. “We shot in the Indian Himalayas for five days with a crew of five,” writes Rathjen. “It was really four as somebody was always resting due to altitude sickness.” As for the story itself, Rathjen (an Australian) found himself in India a few years ago, and was curious as to how the nomads were able to survive in such a sparse environment. “Whilst staying in Leh I wrote the film but didn’t really have enough money to make it at that time,” writes Rathjen. “So I went back to Australia, worked for a year and saved up enough to go back and make the film properly.”
Rathjen’s patience has certainly paid off, as the short he went on to made gives us insight into a culture that doesn’t crop up much on our radar, and a story that feels as real as any documentary work. Keep your eyes out for Rodd–he is currently developing a feature film called Buoyancy with Causeway Films.